07/23/2012 12:05 EDT | Updated 09/22/2012 05:12 EDT

When Multiculturalism Becomes a Threat

Multiculturalism has veered off course when those responsible for our safety -- a major threat to which is Islamist terrorism -- are reluctant to use direct language to describe that threat. Law enforcement officials must be properly and candidly briefed on the role of religious ideology in some strains of terrorism.


Canadians remain divided on whether multiculturalism is salutary or injurious to our country. Perhaps the answer can only be reached on a case-by-case basis, as we work through the constant tension between respecting the cultural distinctiveness of all members of society while demanding loyalty to the state and at least some degree of national unity and shared values.

Five recent stories in the news may help to pinpoint the appropriate boundaries of multiculturalism, enabling us to signal to policy makers where we stand on the issue.

A nine-year-old girl in Quebec refused to remove her hijab during a soccer game, and was forced to stand on the sidelines as a result. This took place days after the International Football Association Board approved the wearing of headscarves due to the dearth of evidence that the practice represents a safety hazard.

A Toronto street-corner Muslim cleric has called for Canadian laws to be amended to require all women to dress modestly, taking inspiration from those Muslim women who cover their entire bodies and at least part of their face in public. If all women covered themselves, according to Al-Haashim Kamena Atangana, they would not be sexually assaulted.

Ontario's Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services is planning a program at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre to meet the spiritual needs of Muslim inmates, and to assist staff, inmates and management "in developing awareness and understanding of both cultural and religious diversity."

A 2009 RCMP publication has resurfaced in the headlines. Entitled "Words Make Worlds," it discourages the use of terms like "Islamic terrorism," "Islamist terrorism," "Jihadism," and "Islamo-fascism" and instead recommends "the construction of 'alternative narratives.'"

The Iranian embassy in Ottawa has been accused of seeking to recruit Iranian-Canadians to infiltrate the Canadian government. Hamid Mohammadi, the embassy's cultural affairs counselor, recently gave an interview in Farsi in which he urged Iranian-Canadians to "occupy high-level key positions" and "resist being melted into the dominant Canadian culture." He also noted the need for "very concentrated cultural programs to enhance and nurture the culture in this fast-growing population" since "this large Iranian population can only be of service to our beloved Iran through these programs and gatherings."

The Iranian-Canadian who helped translate Mohammadi's interview into English as part of her anti-regime activism was quoted as saying: "Multiculturalism is killing Canada. I am sick and tired of political correctness in this country."

Given the implausibility -- and inadvisability -- of discarding the constitutionally enshrined principle of multiculturalism, let us focus instead on establishing reasonable parameters.

For starters, an individual's minority cultural traditions cannot be imposed on others. As such, the notion that all women in Canada should be required to cover themselves in modest Muslim dress is absurd. (And to claim that sexual assault is the fault of the victim is simply offensive). This is not multiculturalism, but a contemptible endeavor by an individual to impose his cultural preferences on all Canadians.

In contrast, a young girl who wishes to wear a hijab while she plays soccer -- absent any risk to her or her teammates' safety -- ought to be able to do so. Getting involved with recreational sports, playing alongside children from diverse backgrounds, not demanding that team members dress as she does, all the while staying true to her own religious convictions, demonstrates how integration and multiculturalism can co-exist.

A special program for Muslim inmates (or any single cultural group) at a detention centre is a more complicated matter. The Canadian Somali Mothers Association, comprised of women whose sons had been in trouble with police, is supportive of this program because, as one spokesperson put it, some young Muslim inmates struggle with the lack of correctional staff from a similar cultural background.

If these inmates can better relate to Muslim staff, leading to more successful rehabilitation and an enhanced respect for the cultural diversity of others, surely this is a program worth pursuing. But if it only creates or reinforces a sense of entitlement to interact solely with people of the same cultural origin, it is a case of multiculturalism gone wrong. The Correctional Services ministry should tread carefully.

Multiculturalism has veered off course when those responsible for our safety -- a major threat to which is Islamist terrorism -- are reluctant to use direct language to describe that threat. This does not mean that Islam itself should be presented as the driver of terrorism; such a position is unequivocally inaccurate and bigoted. But law enforcement officials must be properly and candidly briefed on the role of religious ideology in some strains of terrorism.

Brian Michael Jenkins of the RAND Corporation points out, "The term 'jihad' is on the banner of al-Qaida. If they use it, I can use it." And as Dr. Sebastien Gorka, my colleague at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, adds, "If your enemy has successfully determined the limits of what you can say about him, he is already winning."

Most egregious is the Iranian embassy's alleged attempt to organize outreach programs (ordinarily permitted within the Canadian multicultural context) that are actually intended -- in the words of UBC professor Michael Byers -- "to recruit and utilize a population of Canadian citizens in ways that are clearly an interference with Canada's domestic affairs."

Mohammadi's comments are troubling enough. But coupled with reports by security experts and many Iranian-Canadians that Iran routinely sends spies through its foreign embassies to monitor and intimidate its nationals abroad, the interview has triggered calls for the Iranian embassy to be closed.

The Department of Foreign Affairs must immediately undertake a full investigation into whether the Iranian embassy is encouraging or even coercing Iranian-Canadians to prioritize Iran at the expense of Canadian loyalty and national security. Ottawa must also take heed of the chilling indications of a regime-backed Iranian presence in Canada working to sidestep sanctions, acquire dual-use technology and nuclear know-how, and cross into the United States.

Canadian multiculturalism, tolerance, and even political correctness are admirable values, and we should welcome diversity to the greatest degree possible. But we cannot allow these principles to be abused by those who seek to impose their cultural ideals on others, by those who distract us from genuine threats, and above all, by those who wish to cause us harm.